Doctor Strange

Posted: November 11, 2016 in Film reviews
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Directed by Scott Derrickson. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton and Mads Mikkelsen.

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“You’ll like this, not a lot, but you’ll like it.”

Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a genius. He’s the best neurosurgeon in the world, but his brilliance is matched only by his arrogance. After a car accident his hands are left in ruins, and though the doctors try to put them back together they lack Strange’s skill, and it’s clear he’ll never perform surgery again.

His fellow surgeon and former lover Christine Palmer (a somewhat wasted McAdams) tries to help him come to terms with his new life, but Strange becomes obsessed with regaining full use of his hands and reclaiming his eminent position, and he spends his fortune on one procedure after another, yet at the end his hands remain broken.

Finally, in utter desperation, he hears about a man whose recovery from a broken back that should have been impossible. The man advises Strange that he was healed by a place known as Kamar-Taj in Nepal. Strange uses the last of his money on a one way ticket, but what he finds, rather than a research facility, is a temple dedicated to sorcery, ruled by the Ancient One (Swinton), a Celtic woman who’s supposedly lived for centuries.

Initially sceptical the Ancient One proves to Strange that magic is real. He chooses to stay in Kamar-Taj and learn the ways of the forc…sorry, the ways of magic, including access to the astral plane and other dimensions. His learning is slow, and his arrogance continues to worry those around him, including his newfound friends, fellow sorcerers Karl Mordo (Ejiofor) and master of the mystic arts Wong (an amusing turn by Benedict Wong).

When the peace of Kamar-Taj, and by extension the world, is threatened by the Ancient One’s former pupil Kaecilius (Mikkelsen) Strange will find himself thrown into the heat of battle, and will have to decide what is more important, his hands or the future of the world.

 

The first thing that struck me as I watched Doctor Strange was that I’m really wearied by superhero origin stories now. The second thing that struck me is that Marvel could probably make a decent superhero film even if everyone involved was half asleep.

Doctor Strange is a decent superhero film, and I suspect people weren’t sleeping on the job, certainly the effects people and the actors don’t seem to have been (but more on them later). It’s a curious entry into the Marvel canon however, at once far too familiar, whilst also being far too different to the rest of the Marvel oeuvre, and this contradictory feel knocks it down a few notches. It’s not the worst superhero film of the year (I’m looking at you Suicide Squad and Batman vs Superman)  but it’s nowhere near as good as Civil War or Deadpool.

Strange isn’t a character I know very well from the comics, and the first bombshell is that now magic is a certifiable part of the Marvel universe. This isn’t a major problem, but as with Thor you can feel there was a little trepidation about going for something more fantastical (power armour, radioactive spiders and super soldier serums are one thing, Gods and magic something else. Yes there’s Scarlett Witch but her powers seem more telepathic than magical) It also brings into question why these super powerful sorcerers didn’t help out when Earth was under threat before now. The Ancient One gives a handwavey explanation about them being charged with protecting Earth from more magical threats, but really would it have been that much trouble to transport yourself to New York (instantaneously) and down a few Chituari with some spells?

Some of the magical scenes are far too reminiscent of Inception, they’re done well but they don’t feel new, and nor do the trippier bits that seem to have escaped from a 1970s’ sci-fi film directed by Ken Russell. The effects are well done however.

The origin story itself is pedestrian and follows story beats we’ve seen multiple times. Training montages, corner cutting, and an eventual showdown with the villain before the hero is remotely ready—thankfully once Dr Strange properly becomes Doctor Strange the film does get better. There are some nice fight scenes and, best of all, a finale that plays on Strange’s intellect for a resolution rather than him simply hitting things. That really made a pleasant change. But for far too longer early doors you might as well be watching Iron man. Arrogant genius with facial hair who suffers tragedy and in an attempt to rebuild himself finds the hero inside himself, albeit still a somewhat snarky hero? Check! Really the only difference is that Strange has a cape and magic rather than power armour.

What rises the film up from just being mundane (apart from the originality of the ending) is the casting. Cumberbatch is great. Yes he might be doing a variation on Sherlock, but whilst Strange is arrogant and sarcastic, he’s far less advanced along the autistic spectrum than Holmes. Cumberbatch’s American accent takes a little getting used to, but pretty soon you hardly notice, and he plays the various iterations of Strange well. The hubristic genius, the broken, desperate man, the smart alec apprentice and the honest to goodness hero, and whilst Strange might still be arrogant at the end, he does come across as a better person into the bargain, though I suppose you could argue that his potential sacrifice might be the ultimate display of arrogance rather than the ultimate selfish act, but that uncertainty definitely adds to the film.

Swinton is great as the Ancient One, and despite claims of whitewashing you can see the benefit of this take on the wise old mentor as opposed to a far more clichéd Mr Miyagi style venerable one. There’s something genuinely ethereal about Swinton, even before you shave her head, and she plays the complexities of the character with great subtlety.

Film Set - 'Doctor Strange'

Bloody fancy dress marathon runners!

 

Ejiofor’s one of those actors who couldn’t give a bad performance if he tried, and similarly Mikkelsen is a consistently strong presence in anything he does, even if Kaecilius isn’t the most three dimensional of characters. Have I mentioned how much fun Benedict Wong is? And kudos for the filmmakers taking the clichéd manservant Wong is in the comics and giving him a broader and more equal role.

The only person who loses out is McAdams. She’s a great actress but, much like Portman in the Thor films, she’s lumbered with being the love interest whose main role is to keep the hero grounded. She plays the part well, you just know she could do so much more, but sadly the nature of a predominantly male heroic pantheon is against her. Hopefully she’ll get more to do in upcoming films.

And clearly we’ll be seeing Strange again, the two post credits sequences imply Cumberbatch will be back at least twice, and I recommend you stay right to the end, even after you’ve seen the mid credits sequence where a familiar face shows up.

The direction and script are solid if uninspiring, and the effects are very good, again though I think I’m tiring of cgi, and though it’s strange to say given what else we’ve seen in the Marvel universe, but a lot of the magical stuff just felt too preposterous.

Still it’s funny, action packed with some nice fight scenes, and the cast are uniformly excellent, so now Cumberbatch is Doctor Strange I’m quite looking forward to seeing him again.

Pardon the excruciating pun but it’s a Strange film to quantify, and I think it might take a second viewing before I can decide whether it’s just a bit average, or whether there’s more to it than meets the eye (of Agamotto).

 

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Comments
  1. I might try to overcome the fact that I can’t watch Cumberbatch and give this a chance when it comes on PPV.

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